The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who has had an illegitimate child. Despite being publicly humiliated by wearing a large scarlet letter 'A' on her dress, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her child's father, even as the vindictive newcomer Chillingworth becomes determined to make her confess. This story explores the themes of sexual liberation, sin, and vengeance.

Chapter 23 Summary

Brief Summary

Dimmesdale finishes his sermon and everyone who heard the sermon is in awe. He had spoken about the relationship between God and mankind and the communities of New England. As a result of his eloquence, he is at the height of respect and fame. The procession heads to the town hall, and as Dimmesdale leaves the church, feeble once again despite being at the height of triumph, he pauses at the scaffold where Hester stands. After a moment, he turns toward the scaffold and calls Hester and Pearl to him. Chillingworth tries to stop him, but Dimmesdale resists. He climbs the scaffold with Hester's help and Pearl and Chillingworth join them.

Dimmesdale addresses the amazed and befuddled crowd, confessing everything, laying emphasis to what is hidden on his chest under his hand. He pulls aside his vestment to reveal his chest to the crowd. Everyone is shocked and Dimmesdale collapses. After speaking with Hester, expressing his peace, he dies.

Detailed Summary

Dimmesdale finishes his sermon and the everyone is filled with amazement at his ability. All who listened are filled with awe and respect for the clergyman. His sermon was about the relation between God and mankind, especially the communities of New England. He emphasized a glorious destiny for the people who wanted to make a new kind of society in the new land. Throughout his sermon had been a tone of sadness, as if he was about to depart for God's own society. As a result of the sermon, Dimmesdale's reputation is at its highest peak and he stands at the pulpit in the utmost triumph.

The procession heads back out, towards the town hall. The musicians lead the way, followed by the military escort, the magistrates and other ministers. The crowd shouts and cheers for them. Dimmesdale is seen leaving the church, looking frail again, even in his triumph. He makes his way slowly forward, but pauses when he reaches the scaffold. After a moment, he turns toward the scaffold and calls Hester and Pearl to him. Chillingworth tries to stop him, but Dimmesdale resists. He climbs the scaffold with Hester's help and Pearl and Chillingworth join them. Chillingworth can do no more and Dimmesdale is pleased he finally outwits Chillingworth.

Everyone present is confused and partly unable or unwilling to make the conclusion which seems obvious. Dimmesdale addresses the crowd, confessing everything, laying emphasis to what is hidden on his chest under his hand. He pulls aside his vestment to reveal his chest to the crowd. Everyone is shocked and Dimmesdale collapses. Chillingworth is devastated and Dimmesdale offers his god's forgiveness to him. Dimmesdale address Pearl and asks for the kiss that she would not give until he stood with them in public. She kisses him and the spell that seems to hold her captive and make her otherworldly is broken; it is certain that she will grow to be normal and good, rather than at odds with everyone who interacts with her.

Dimmesdale says goodbye to Hester, certain that they will remain separated, even in the world beyond their present one. He tells her of his peace with himself and others, and with a final mention of his Heavenly Father, Dimmesdale dies.

Chapter 24 Summary

Brief Summary

After Dimmesdale's death, there is much debate as to what really happened that day. Most people who were present say that on the clergyman's breast was a scarlet letter, almost exactly like Hester's, imprinted on his flesh. Some people, on the other hand, argue that there was nothing on the minister's chest, nor did he admit to any kind of guilt related to Hester's situation. They argue that he meant his death to be like a parable, signifying that everyone is a sinner when one is compared to God's own purity. The narrator discounts this theory as anything other than a story told by Dimmesdale's closest friends who wish his reputation to remain unsullied.

The narrator suggests that the main moral of the story should be to be true to oneself and to the world.

After Dimmesdale's death, Chillingworth loses all the strength he has and almost vanishes entirely. He soon dies, and leaves a large amount of property to Hester and Pearl. They leave the settlement, and nothing is heard of them for a long time. One day, Hester returns to her home on the edge of the settlement, and continues the life she led before Dimmesdale's death, including wearing the letter on her dress. The community comes to esteem her even more; she becomes a kind of advisor, especially for unhappy young women. Hester maintains that relationships between men and women will change at some point in the future but she understands that it is not her place to be the instrument of change. She dies, and is buried in the town's cemetery, next to Dimmesdale.

Detailed Summary

After Dimmesdale's death, there is much debate as to what really happened that day. Most people who were present say that on the clergyman's breast was a scarlet letter, almost exactly like Hester's, imprinted on his flesh. As to how and when this came to be on his chest is another matter; some say it came to be of its own accord on the same day that Hester first wore hers, others say that it came to be after Chillingworth began his torture, others say that the minister inflicted it on himself as an act of penance. All agree that the letter was present.

Some people, on the other hand, argue that there was nothing on the minister's chest, nor did he admit to any kind of guilt related to Hester's situation. They argue that he meant his death to be like a parable, signifying that everyone is a sinner when one is compared to God's own purity. The narrator discounts this theory as anything other than a story told by Dimmesdale's closest friends who wish his reputation to remain unsullied.

Hawthorne mentions his source, an old manuscript written following the testimony of Hester's contemporaries. He suggests that there are many morals to be taken from the story, the most notable being that one should be true to oneself and to the rest of the world.

The rest of the chapter details what happens to each of the main characters after Dimmesdale's death. When his reason for living is no longer present, Chillingworth loses all the strength he has and almost vanishes entirely. He is proof that love and hatred are very similar in their roots; for each, the connection to something or someone outside of oneself is so powerful that the loss of that object is almost like a deathblow. Indeed, Chillingworth dies within a year of Dimmesdale. In his will, he bequeaths a great deal of property to Hester and Pearl. Pearl becomes the richest heiress in the New World. The two of them disappear, probably back to Europe.

Later, Hester returns to Boston and once again occupies her former home on the deserted coast. She is without Pearl and there is no word of her, but it is thought that she is happy and married and living in Europe. Hester again lives the life she did before, inclusive of the shame which she bore before. She continues to support only a meager existence, though there are more articles of comfort in her cottage than there were before.

Although she still wears the letter, it does not have the same significance or stigma as it did before. She becomes a source of advice and counsel, especially for unhappy young women seeking help in matters of love. In these moments Hester maintains her position that at some point there will be a change in the relations between men and women, but she has accepted that it is not her place to cause the change. She lives on in this manner for many years, and when she dies, is buried, next to Dimmesdale, in the same cemetery as mentioned at the very beginning of the story.

Chapter 23-24 Analysis

Dimmesdale is at the height of his fame and Hester is at the depths of despair. They could not seem more separate, though their sin is the same. The deception of appearances is clear as the congregation expresses their awe of Dimmesdale's ability and purity. His energy had overwhelmed the congregation, but as he makes his way out of the church, it has left him as he approaches his final obligation of his earthly existence. He calls for Hester and Pearl, and thus finally is true to himself, and to Hester and Pearl. Pearl goes readily, as it is what she has been asking Dimmesdale to do throughout the novel, and Hester joins her because she has no choice to, though at that moment it is what she least desires. Chillingworth recognizes that his chance for revenge has slipped away, and tries to stop Dimmesdale. He resists and confesses his sin to the crowd, urging Hester to climb the scaffold with him.

He is convinced that what he does is far better than any other course of action, but Hester, who is still firmly under the sway of the lost happy ending that they were so close to achieving. Dimmesdale knows he is dying and knows he must confess his sins before all. At one point in his confession he falters, and almost resists the fate that is his, but he eventually overcomes the weakness that has plagued him for the past seven years and reveals his own "A" to the crowd. He is true to himself, and is finally ready to receive Pearl's kiss, which she gladly gives. Now that all has been revealed, Pearl's role is finished, and the kiss shared between Pearl and her father seems to put all the anguish and sorrow experienced by these three people to rest. All three are released from the spell under which they were laboring, the spell which they had cast over themselves as long as the secret was kept.

The debate over the true nature of events on that Election Day demonstrates the way in which interpretation interferes with facts, and how quite often people will see what they wish to see. The narrator suggests that the group of people who claim that Dimmesdale's death was meant to be a parable, rather than a confession of sin, are of a kind who are blind to everything but their own desires and blinkered opinions. Above all, the narrator indicates that the nature of Dimmesdale's letter, and the way it came to be is not important; it is the lessons that the story imparts that is of highest interest. The narrator claims that the most important moral to be taken from the story is, "Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!", which Dimmesdale's experience offers most readily. Hester's return to Boston is the final support for this theme. She comes back to her cottage on the edge of the settlement, and takes up her letter freely, because it her only choice. Her life abroad could not have felt genuine or deserved, because it is only on the soil where she and Dimmesdale walked together that she can find a home. It is not her place to remove the letter. It dictates its own fate, and once she returns, it does not fall off of its own accord, but it is "transformed into something that should speak a different purport," as Hester predicts in her conversation with Chillingworth in chapter 14. She becomes sought after counsel, and the experience that Gov. Bellingham once discounted as a measure of evil, is a source of wisdom for the people of her community.

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